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The Year of Living Disruptively

Back in October, I commemorated my six-month anniversary as technology editor of Chain Store Age with a column looking at how retail IT has been disrupted in recent years. Now that I have a full year under my belt, I thought it would be interesting to look at how customer expectations of retail IT have been disrupted in recent years (and don’t worry, there will be no 18-month anniversary piece). Three paradigm-shifting changes in how retailers must now engage with customers using technology stand out.

Every Man is an Island
Simon and Garfunkel once sang, “no man is an island.” With all due to respect to those mighty troubadours, the individualized nature of modern consumer technology has made every man (and woman) an island, and they like it that way. Social media sites, search sites, news sites and even many retail sites both allow consumers to set preferences for what type of information they want to receive, and also automatically tailor the content they view further using behavioral algorithms.

As a result, the typical consumer expects to receive a uniquely filtered experience that presents exactly what items they want at that precise time and location, for an agreeable price, across all of a retailer’s digital channels. And there are enough other opportunities for an individual digital experience that a consumer who doesn’t get one from you can easily obtain one from your competitors. Oh, consumers also now expect this highly personalized experience in your physical stores (see “Shattered” below for more on this “seamless” phenomenon).

Here We Are Now, Entertain Us
Nirvana sang these words ironically back in 1991, but in 2014 they represent the very real expectations of mainstream consumers. Constant connectivity means consumers now have access to constant entertainment, as any parent who has calmed a small child with a smartphone video knows.

But adults want to have fun, too. And they want it all the time from every omni-channel interaction, not just when they download a game app or visit a theme park. Retailers like HSN have responded with “gamification,” the usage of video game strategies to turn digital shopping into a fun competition with prizes, awards, and public status symbols. Brick-and-mortar retailers like Starbucks have also joined the gamification craze through activities like contests for customers who post tweets of themselves enjoying their favorite Starbucks beverages. If it isn’t technology-enhanced fun, it doesn’t sell.

Shattered
The Rolling Stones released a song called “Shattered” about the manic pace of life in late 1970s New York. The pace of life consumers lead today, with distinctions between “virtual” and “physical” blurred beyond recognition, makes Studio 54 look like a retirement home. Mobile devices with continually expanding computing power allow consumers to engage with the physical world using social media, the Internet, and apps as experience enhancers and sources of additional information.

This “shattering” (hold your groans, please) of traditional silos between channels means retailers have to offer an identical, sequential and personalized experience across every touchpoint, whether physical, online, social or mobile. The back-end implications are staggering, but the front end implications are simple. If you don’t want your profits to disappear like the distinctions separating once distinct consumer channels, you will find a way to deliver a seamless customer experience. The Stones have bucked the odds by lasting more than 50 years in rock n’ roll, the odds against retailers who do not adapt to the seamless expectations of today’s constantly connected consumer lasting even a year or two are much longer.


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